'The Big Fella' portrays Babe Ruth as the first modern sports celebrity
Biographer Jane Leavy shows Ruth's greatness as player to be of such a magnitude that it's still hard to grasp.
Babe Ruth never made a nickel from the Baby Ruth candy bar despite its creator all but admitting the famed slugger inspired the name — and despite a legal challenge by Ruth. The official line from the Curtiss Candy Company? The Baby Ruth name stood in tribute to Ruth Cleveland, daughter of President Grover Cleveland.
Since the candy bar debuted in 1921, just as Ruth established himself as baseball’s most captivating player, the explanation then and now seems ridiculous. Especially when one remembers Ruth Cleveland died in 1904 and her father left the White House in 1908.
Even without that considerable financial windfall, Ruth was, in every other way, a model for the modern-day athlete, pioneering by decades the era of agents, endorsement portfolios, and an approach emphasizing star power as a constant source of income on and off the field.
Ruth innovated on the field, too. Without the benefit of technology allowing him to study pitchers and at-bats through infinite video replays, Ruth developed a swing heavy on mechanical precision, combining power with efficiency. A current big-league hitting coach studying his swing noted an almost identical finish to that of Washington Nationals All-Star Bryce Harper.
And, while Ruth’s explanations were often unsophisticated, his mental acuity would be borne out many years later. A prime example: His assertion that he never saw the bat hit the ball and that he usually closed his eyes at the point of impact. A scientific study in 1984 proved the point, determining it is impossible for the human eye to track a pitch within 5 feet of contact.
Over the course of 22 years in the majors – 15 of those spent in the Bronx turning the New York Yankees into a baseball dynasty – Ruth first became a dominant starting pitcher before switching to an everyday position player and captivating fans with record-setting power-hitting performances.
Translation: The Sultan of Swat bashed epic home runs at a record clip. His larger-than-life persona and considerable appetites made Ruth a constant source of fascination, fueling a nascent mass media’s need for colorful characters.
All of these aspects of Ruth’s life, and many more, come into focus in The Big Fella. Jane Leavy, author of previous biographies on baseball Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle, spent eight years researching and writing her Ruth biography, and her care and diligence surface on every page.
Numerous books have been written about Ruth, who died in 1948 at age 53. Leavy builds on some of the most admired Ruthian chronicles, including “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life” by Robert Creamer (1974) and Leigh Montville’s “The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth” (2006).
For “The Big Fella,” Leavy conducted 250 interviews, finding as many of Ruth’s near and distant relatives, chance-encounter admirers and baseball experts as could be conjured. The book moves back and forth in time while using a three-week, cross-country barnstorming exhibition tour with Hall of Fame teammate Lou Gehrig after the 1927 season as the framework for Leavy’s prodigious reporting.
Structuring her biography in this way allows Leavy to avoid the dreaded game-and-season recap formula inherent in the genre without sacrificing the majesty of Ruth’s athleticism. Using the language and standards of baseball then and now, including the contemporary analytical measures known as sabermetrics, Leavy makes a persuasive case that Ruth remains one of the greatest players baseball has ever seen, even when his achievements are considered in the context of playing in an era when blacks and Hispanics were excluded from the game, travel was far less demanding, there were no night games, relief pitching was all but non-existent, and sliders and split-fingered fastballs didn’t exist.
The latter observations come from Major League Baseball historian John Thorn, one of many experts interviewed by Leavy for “The Big Fella.”
She proves just as thorough when trying to make sense of Ruth’s wealth, turning to a Morgan Stanley financial adviser to review archival bank and income statements from the records of Ruth’s savvy business manager, Christy Walsh.
Leavy notes Ruth was reportedly the second-wealthiest person in the US during his playing heyday. And as for his baseball bona fides – Ruth ranked first in career homers for 39 years with 714 and is third today – the author cites modern measurements including Ruth leading all players in on-base plus slugging percentage (the current gold standard for assessing hitters) and wins above replacement.
Babe Ruth has been larger-than-life for so long that even hard-core baseball fans can lose sight of his true greatness.
Mike Rizzo, general manager of the Washington Nationals, reminds readers when he tells Leavy, “He … became one of the best left-handed pitchers ever. Then he said, ‘Screw it, I’d rather hit,’ and became the best hitter ever.”
Throughout the book, Leavy, through dogged reporting and astute analysis, strips away many of the myths and misconceptions surrounding Ruth’s life. Among those myths: Ruth wasn’t an orphan, as is widely believed. Instead, his grim childhood living at a Catholic school in Baltimore stemmed from his parents’ over-reaction to a mischievous and mildly rebellious 7-year-old boy.
As for the 84-year Curse of the Bambino caused by cash-strapped Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee selling Ruth to the Yankees in 1919 for $100,000, Leavy explains the transaction was even worse than that. Frazee, at the same time, borrowed $300,000 from the Yankees owner at 7% interest, meaning that, within six years, interest payments alone repaid the Yankees’s investment in Ruth.
So, what else did the Yankees get for free besides arguably the most popular, dynamic player in history? A 20-to-1 return on Ruth’s salary, thanks to surging ticket sales and other gains spurred by near-universal adoration for and curiosity about the slugger.
As Leavy writes, Ruth “altered the dimensions of the game, its architecture and equipment.” No argument here.